Measuring Student Learning Outcomes- Assessing Core Knowledge of Torts

As I grade this semester’s torts exams I am again struck by how critical it is to give students practice in applying concepts. I am noticing that all students are  more effective writing about an issue when they have had two or three chances to practice writing about it before the final exam. This semester students had an ungraded writing assignment which asked them to analyze 2 elements of a negligence claim –  duty and breach of duty. Then they wrote a practice midterm and a midterm which asked them to analyze duty and breach again. On the final exam, those two elements showed up again – as did lots of others. In analyzing duty and breach, students’ quality of analysis was significantly better than their analysis of other elements.

This is consistent with current research on the brain. According to many cognitive scientists, human brains need to practice solving a problem in at least three to four different  ways to have it “stick” in  long term memory. To me this means that if I really want students to learn torts, I need to provide them with opportunities to practice each of the skills and knowledge I test on their final – at least three times, in writing. That suggests significantly more practice, dramatically less coverage. It would mean that  I would need to work with others to define what it is that students need to retain in their long term memory.  Assume that one of the learning outcomes of legal education is that law students should graduate with a core understanding of tort law, including the elements of negligence.  If students had a deep understanding of the elements of negligence, two years later, and without any preparation, they could recognize and analyze a basic negligence claim when presented with a fact situation.  That would show me that they didn’t just learn torts for the semester, but that they learned core torts concepts for later practice.
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One Response

  1. Sophie’s observations demonstrate the need for us (law professors) to provide students with formative as well as summative assessments. The single, end of the semester exam is a summative assessment that serves few purposes- the primary purpose being to sort students for prospecitve employers by assigning students norm-referenced grades (the curve, mandatory median or mean). Sophie’s use of the practice midterm and real midterm provided students with a formative assessment that gave both the students and Sophie feedback on what the students were learning.

    Perhaps we should form teaching groups around the various subject matters that teach and come up with some of the problems and materials Sophie mentions. We could also experiment with ways of doing the evaluations efficiently. For example, we could have the students provide feedback to each other on some of the non-graded exercises. This might be done by providing the students with a template matrix or sample answer and then have each student evaluate the practice problem of another student. The student who was evaluated would also have the template or other device and could do his or her own evaluation. We could then do random reality checks on the evaluations or have any student who disagreed with the evaluation received to contact us so that we could go over the evaluation with the student This process woud also incorporate criteria-referenced evaluations rather than norm-referenced evaluations. Using the peer evaluations would also help us manage the increased time involved in providing students adequate opportunities for the deep learning Sophie suggests. I am sure that there are other interesting ways to do this.

    I do not teach torts, but I do teach legal ethics. Is anyone interested in starting a teacher group?

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